Hameray Classroom Literacy Blog

Mastering Spanish High-Frequency Words

By Liz Armstrong, Reading Recovery and Descubriendo la Lectura Teacher Leader, Guest Blogger

If you're looking for ways to help bilingual and dual language learners master Spanish high-frequency words, you'll want to keep reading. In today's blog post, I'll explain why reciprocity with these words is important as your students read and write. Then I'll describe how you can help them as they read books in Spanish.

Reading and Writing Words in Spanish

There is no doubt that the Spanish language is more orthographically transparent than English: “English speakers use about 44 sounds. Spanish speakers use about 24” (Yopp and Yopp, 2009). There are also interesting insights about the complexity of words in other languages:

The writing systems of Serbo-Croatian, Finnish, Welsh, Spanish, Dutch, Turkish, and German are on the whole much more regular in symbol–sound correspondences than those of English and French. The former are referred to as transparent or shallow orthographies in which sound-symbol correspondences are highly consistent, while the latter are referred to as opaque or deep orthographies that are less consistent because each letter or group of letters may represent different sounds in different words. (Ellis et al., 2004)

This is where the following question comes into play: if Spanish has a more shallow orthography and the sound-symbol correspondence is more consistent, why shouldn’t students use sound analysis to solve every word in reading and writing? The short answer is that solving every word is highly inefficient processing of text.

Under a simple theory of reading, a student would approach a text bottom up and use phonemic awareness to read or write every word (especially in a language with transparent orthography). However, reading in such a fashion may allow a child to pick up the sound bites of the language. They may even blend those back into a word either at the phoneme-by-phoneme level or syllable-by-syllable, but simply emitting sounds is not reading.

The Value of Mastering Spanish High-Frequency Words

According to Marie Clay, “Reading [is] a message-getting, problem-solving activity which increases in power and flexibility the more it is practiced” (1991, 6). Kids should be reading leveled books in order to enjoy stories and to make real-world connections, not just read as a simple task of sound-symbol correspondence.

With that in mind, mastering high-frequency words allows children to focus their attention on comprehending a narrative or informational text. Their mastery of these words also helps kids solve words that they don’t know automatically or that they aren’t anticipating with language predictions and checking. In order for students to check on unfamiliar words, they should be using visual information to see that what they hear from their language prediction, and the sounds emitted from their mouths when saying that word, matches what they see in print.

Automaticity with these words is critical not only in reading but also in writing. This is significant because it will ensure that there is reading fluency and fluency in writing. When students have words that they know automatically in writing, they can also write more fluently rather than having to write words sound by sound or solve every word, which frees up their attention to focus on the message they want to express.

Tips to Support Reciprocity in Reading and Writing

You can incorporate high-frequency word practice in both reading and writing. Before or after reading a book, try using a masking card to isolate words in the text and ask,  What’s this word? Another way to have children practice recognizing words in guided reading leveled books is by asking them something like, Do you know any words on this page?  Then have them locate and say words that they know quickly. This can be done in a guided reading lesson, during a reading conference, or you may revisit books for shared reading to do some of this work to remind kids that some words just need to be known.

As mentioned, words need to be known fluently in both reading and writing. You can support this type of reciprocity by having a child practice spelling one of the words that you find in the text with magnetic letters and checking their response by using the book to confirm the correct spelling. They could also use other mediums, such as tracing the word in the sand, using markers and a whiteboard (or whiteboard tape), a water pen and a water board or a chalkboard, or erasable crayons on a smooth surface. In addition, when students are writing in small groups or in the classroom, you could have them practice their “known” or “nearly known” words multiple times on a practice page (covering and checking on themselves each time).

El cocodrilo is a level C book in Spanish that you can use to point out that some words are used a lot and in many books ( palabras de uso frecuente ). You can also use page 23 in the Zoozoo Mundo Animal teacher's guide to find activities that will facilitate the mastery of Spanish high-frequency words as students read this title and other Spanish books in the same series. The words that you can mask or point to in El cocodrilo  that children may recognize with automaticity in isolation include  es, un, no, en, el, la, and .

Students should read these words aloud with automaticity rather than by decoding. Being able to do this type of quick recognition allows children to have more fluency and it frees up their attention for the other work in the text. Sure, your students can most likely decode the words, but what we are looking for with this type of practice is more efficiency with print. As additional practice to support reciprocity, you can have kids practice writing these words fluently. This would be a great time to let them use different mediums to either construct or write these words, such as magnetic letters, dry erase markers, etc.

Again, in every language there are words that occur with a high-frequency in texts. In addition, even in Spanish, some words require a visual memory for kids to master them. For example, students who need to learn how to read and write in Spanish will write ce for que (using phonological awareness versus orthographic knowledge) or aci for aquí or estaba as estava . Another good example of orthographic knowledge in Spanish is that kids just need to know that there is a u after a q and that hermano and other words with the h muda have an h . Students may not be able to hear those sounds, but they have to remember the words that follow these rules as they read and write.

Be sure to give your students multiple ways to work with words (decoding/encoding, using parts/chunks, words they just know fast, thinking about other words they know). Visit our blog often to support students in your classroom and most of all . . .

Teach with intention!

Liz Armstrong has been a Reading Recovery and Descubriendo la Lectura Teacher Leader for the past five years. Before training to be a Teacher Leader, Liz obtained her master's degree in administration with licensure as principal, director of instruction, and significant coursework toward director of special education licensure. She has been an educator since 2002 with experience as an ESL teacher, bilingual classroom teacher, bilingual literacy intervention specialist, and bilingual instructional coach. In 2011, she completed a professional development certificate program with action research on how a focus on language development impacts achievement in reading and writing in various instructional settings. Language development, using data to inform instruction, and equity/advocacy for all students have been areas of emphasis in her career as an educator.